A former railroad turned greenway is due to open this spring. Kate Simon reports

I'm standing on Washington Street in New York looking at a tower block straddling an elevated railway. It's a peculiar sight, part of an inspired new project that could transform Manhattan's Lower West Side.

This elevated train track is the High Line, an 80-year-old freight railway that once took goods from the waterfront into the city. Ten years ago it became the subject of a battle between the local community, which wanted to preserve it, and the mayor's office, which wanted to pull it down. The preservationists won, and for the past seven years they have been transforming part of the derelict freight line into an overhead park.

The aim of the Friends of the High Line (FHL) – the group behind the project – is to create "a grand, public promenade that can be enjoyed by all residents and visitors in New York City".

The FHL has spearheaded the campaign to raise the multimillion-dollar budget needed from public and private coffers to turn 1.5 miles of the old railway track into a green urban space. The first section – the southern end, from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street – is due to open this spring. The next part, from 20th to 30th Streets, will open in 2010. And the final stretch, the railyard and spur in Hell's Kitchen, is still to be secured.

The extraordinary 20-storey block bridging the track is the new Standard Hotel, the inspiration of Andre Balazs, owner of Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. The hotel is already partly open and the High Line's supporters hope his trendy touch will prove a further reason for the creative crowd to visit the already hip surrounding neighbourhoods of the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea. There are also plans for an outpost of the Whitney Museum of American Art to go up along the route.

Once the High Line opens to the public, the FHL believes it will enjoy similar success to the Promenade Plantée in Paris's 12th arrondissement, which has helped regenerate the area and won wide acclaim. Katie Lorah, spokesperson for the FHL, says: "Even before the High Line has opened, there's a great sense of anticipation in the neighbourhood."

The High Line was constructed between 1929 and 1934 to carry freight safely from the waterfront into the city following a spate of deaths on the original street-level railway along 10th Avenue. The elevated track, which originally ran from 35th Street to St John's Park Terminal, was designed to pass through the centre of blocks and in and out of factories and warehouses. But the rise of road haulage led to its demise, and the last trains hit the buffers in 1980.

The integration of the line and the city is one element exciting prospective pedestrians. Although the new park will only stretch from just west of Penn Station to the Meatpacking District, it will offer the first chance to stroll 30ft above the city's streets, and gain glimpses of usually unseen city gardens.

It will also offer an intriguing experience of old and new. "You will sense New York's industrial past in the rivets and girders. You will perceive the future unrolling before you in an artfully designed environment of unprecedented innovation," says the FHL.

Compact facts

How to get there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) offers return flights from London Gatwick to New York from £259 in March if booked by midnight 27 January. The W New York (00800 325 25252; www.whotels.com/newyork) offers rooms from $339 (£232) per night.

Further information

Friends of the High Line ( www.thehighline.org);

NYC & Company ( www.nycgo.com).